Rebellious Dignity on Latina Equal Pay Day

Today is a key date in the struggle for economic equality and human rights. November 1st is Latina Equal Pay Day, marking the date when the typical Latina woman’s wages since January 1, 2017 finally catch up to what the typical white man was paid in calendar year 2017.  The date is calculated based on Census Bureau data on full-time, full-year workers who identified as female and Hispanic or Latino. Latinx workers are overrepresented in industries notorious for both low pay and sexual assault, including janitorial work on the night shift, agricultural work, and hotel services. This disparity in workplace safety, compared to white men, is an inherently unequal working condition, distinct from wage disparity alone.

Many factors contribute to the Latina pay gap, including pervasive workplace discrimination, lack of educational opportunities, and—in the case of Latina immigrants—barriers posed by immigrant status and language proficiency. Sexual harassment and violence are other factors that both cause and exacerbate the economic disparity between Latinx workers who identify as women and white men. The costs of workplace sexual harassment and outright violence exacerbate the ill effects of earning a wage that is half of what it should be—including costs for treatment of physical injuries, cost of treating associated emotional injuries, risk of workplace retaliation for reporting or objecting to harassment, and social stigma.

Latinx confront the combined effects of ethnic, racial, and gender bias that can produce demeaning stereotypes about their sexual receptiveness and compound the risk of being harassed. At the same time, Latinx are concentrated in service-sector jobs where workers are more exposed to both low pay and harassment. These jobs often involve extreme power imbalances with supervisors and a need to appear pleasant and accommodating to customers, further increasing workers’ vulnerability to harassment and fear of reprisals that can discourage victims from coming forward.

Sexual harassment can impact Latinx pay by pushing workers out of jobs or entire industries, often into lower-paying work. According to a study of young women from diverse backgrounds, those who experienced harassment at work were 6.5 times more likely to change jobs than those who did not face harassment, and they continued to report significantly greater financial stress two years later.

Yet a powerful Latinx movement is pushing back: Dignity for Latinx bodies is a fundamental part of equal pay for equal work. Worker-led coalitions are creating safer workplaces and curtailing wage theft in Latinx-heavy industries.

Latinx workers and their allies are responding to disparities in both pay and dignity with intersectional interventions. For example, in California’s janitorial services industry, the Ya Basta! Coalition is creating an infrastructure of prometoras, janitorial peer advocates who empower and support their colleagues against perpetrators of sexual violence who are exploiting low-wage workers’ isolated working conditions, limited English proficiency, ignorance of anti-sexual violence laws, fear of immigration enforcement, and/or fear of retaliation for reporting assaults. 

California’s Property Service Workers Protection Act was a critical policy victory for the Ya Basta! Coalition. It established state-wide safeguards against wage theft and strengthened sexual harassment training requirements in the janitorial industry. Jennifer Reisch, Legal Director of Equal Rights Advocates, a member of the Ya Basta! Coalition, described how Latinx workers are continuing to “take their power” with the promertora program, undeterred by Governor Brown’s veto of a further anti-sexual harassment bill earlier this month. The coalition of anti-violence advocates, union leaders, worker advocates, and women worker leaders is permanently disrupting insidious power structures with relentless organizing.

Measure Z in Oakland California is another example of regulation with the potential to reduce both the wage gap and the dignity gap for large numbers of Latinx workers. The measure would provide Oakland hotel workers with better pay and industry-specific safeguards against sexual assault via help buttons in hotel rooms. Cynthia Morfin, Oakland Organizer for EBASE, is a Latinx leader in the Measure Z campaign as well as a former hotel worker herself. “We see sexual assault and the overworking and underpaying of immigrant women hotel workers as two parts of the same story: hotel companies putting their profits over peoples' humanity. This is obviously an abuse of their power, and it’s up to us to demand dignity and respect in the workplace,” Morfin commented.

Comments